Thinking too big over infrastructure

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 13 February 2024

There's a price to be paid for getting the country 'back on track' - with some groups saying new powers for ministers over infrastructure projects go too far and risk ruining the environment.

National MP Chris Bishop

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The government's plan to speed up infrastructure projects by giving more decision-making power to ministers has set off alarm bells around the country. 

It's a change to the Resource Management Act, one of the most controversial pieces of legislation over the last few decades. 

Environmentalists says it's a move too far, and risks wrecking some of the country's most sensitive landscapes. 

And there are further worries that the move puts too much power in the hands of a minister.  

Today's episode of The Detail  looks at the new proposal to "fast-track" infrastructure development.

University of Otago public law professor Andrew Geddis takes us back to where this idea all came from - Labour's reforms to "fast-track" resource management after Covid-19. 

"In the midst of the Covid crisis, there was a concern that the economy was really going to suffer as a result - everything was going to slow down," he says.

"To try and get a bump back into the economy, Labour and New Zealand First created a 'fast track' process to allow projects to be expedited through the resource management process." 

The idea was that the minister for the environment chose the project from a list of applications, then a panel would make a decision on whether it would happen.

But now, National is proposing to turn that model on its head.

"What it looks like the main difference is going to be, is the ministers will decide, 'this is a good thing, it should go ahead'. And then [they'll] send it to expert panels which can impose some conditions on it... but can't, according to the letter, overturn the minister's decision to do it," says Geddis.

The change is being described as 'Think Big Part II'. Newsroom's environment editor David Williams tells The Detail  exactly what Robert Muldoon's Think Big Part I was, and lays out the issues with the new plan. 

"Essentially there were real big problems globally in the late seventies. This country [New Zealand] wanted to really get the economy cranking, and one of the ways they thought they'd do that is by making it easier for big overseas companies to come in and give us that beautiful foreign direct investment." 

The other thing National is proposing over all of this is the rebalancing of Te Mana o te Wai when it comes to freshwater management.

David Williams explains: "Te Mana o te Wai is basically a hierarchy of values... So under Te Mana o te Wai, the waterway itself, nature comes first, and then it's the health and wellbeing of communities and peoples, so things like drinking-water, and then the commercial interests come third."

Andrew Geddis says the government has decided there is a need for New Zealand to develop quickly, to get some projects done in a hurry and is proposing a law change to make that happen.

"The cost of that is going to be, that people who have an interest in what's being proposed, may think it's a bad idea, will have only very limited ways to express that, and there will be very little that can be done to actually stop the things from happening." 

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